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Play It As It Lays: A Novel ()

San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Novels of the West (23)

Modernity has promised Man many things, the most important of which is that with God dead, we are free to jettison the archaic Judeo-Christian morality which has held us in thrall lo these many years and can now do, essentially, whatever we wish.  This basic promise was finally and fully embraced during the 1960's with Women's Liberation, the Sexual Revolution, the rise of the Drug Culture, the rejection of the nuclear family, etc., etc., etc..  All of these different waves of social experimentation had a one thing in common, each was premised on the idea that individual freedom is the paramount value, more important than any responsibility owed to our fellow men.  Together they elevate the self above neighborhood, community, society and family.  They place the individual at the of his own universe, whole and sufficient unto himself, beholden to no one, dependent on no one.

Joan Didion's novel, Play It As It Lays, though written in 1970, already recognized the horrific consequences of this monstrous ideology of selfishness.  The main character in the novel, Maria Wyeth, is a thirty-one year old model turned actress.  Her days are filled with casual sex, drugs, alcohol, aimless wanderings, and meaningless conversations with people she doesn't much like.  Her marriage is falling apart.  Her four year old daughter has been institutionalized, because of some form of chemical imbalance.  Pregnant again, she gets an abortion, an illegal one performed in a safe house in Encino.  This accelerates her slide into an emotional instability so severe that she ends up confined to a mental hospital.

Though she mentions an inchoate longing to return to her childhood several times, in her final monologues in the book she seems to have settled into complete nihilism :

    I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing.  The answer is 'nothing.'

And her behavior--the sex with friends, acquaintances and strangers, the barbiturates and alcohol, the almost complete absence of emotion with which she accepts a friend's decision to commit suicide--certainly suggests that nothing matters.  However, there is one moment in the book which betrays a hidden truth; after an assignation with a married lover, the following conversation ensues :

    'Don't cry,' he said.

    'There's no point.'

    'No point in what.'

    'No point in our doing any of those things.'

    He looked at her for a long while.  'Later,' he said then.

    'I'm sorry.'

    'It's all right.'

    On the drive back they told each other that it had been the wrong time, the wrong place, that it was
    bad because he had lied to arrange it, that it would be all right another time, idyllic later.  He
    mentioned the strain he had been under, he mentioned the preview had gone badly.  She mentioned
    that she was getting the curse.  They mentioned Kate, Carter, Felicia, the weather, Oxnard, his
    dislike of motel rooms,  her fear of subterfuge.  They mentioned everything but one thing: that she
    had left the point in a bedroom in Encino.

Significantly, this comes in a portion of the book that is not told in Maria's first person voice.  It would seem to be the author's judgment upon Maria and her cohorts.  The freedom they have bought into has brought them entirely empty and miserable lives, while leaving them incapable of understanding that certain things in life actually do mean something.   Maria's life had a point, the life that she was carrying and towards which she had a responsibility.  It was the abdication of this burden, the failure to accept responsibility for another being, which has rendered her life finally meaningless.

This is a bleak and devastating look at a culture where people have become completely atomized, heedless of anyone beyond themselves and, therefore, so soulless that there's not much to like about themselves.  In fact, none of the characters are likable and, other than that brief authorial comment, there's not much of a redeeming vision to be found.  I kind of admired the book's very savagery, but it was ultimately just so dark and hopeless that it was hard to enjoy.


Grade: (B)


Joan Didion Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Joan Didion
    -ESSAY: (Joan Didion, 2000-02-21, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Why I Write: Excerpted from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (Joan Didion)
    -ESSAY: California cool and Magical Thinking: Joan Didion at 86: Whether reporting from the trippy heart of 1960s counterculture or covering the trial of the Central Park Five, the legendary essayist brings a spirit of restless inquiry to all her writing (Alex Clark, 8 Feb 2021, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: What We Get Wrong About Joan Didion : She’s been canonized for impeccable style, but Didion’s real insights were about what holds society together, or tears it apart. (Nathan Heller, January 25, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: California Dreaming With Joan Didion : Trapped in my apartment I pulled Joan’s books off the shelf. I wanted to learn again from her meticulous observation of detail, character and setting, and her great sense of irony. (Christopher Dickey, Apr. 19, 2020 , Daily Beast)
-ARCHIVES: Joan Didion (Lit Hub)
    -REVIEW: of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Dan Wakefield, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Where I Was From by Joan Didion (Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Where I Was From by Joan Didion (Thomas Mallon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (Sarah Moroz, Dailty Beast)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (Peter Tonguette, American Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (leo Robson, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (Charles Arrowsmith, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Let Me Tell You (Sarah Ditum, Spectator)

Book-related and General Links:
    -VIDEO : In Depth: Joan Didion (Book TV, C-SPAN, May 7, 2000)
    -ESSAY : Joan Didion: God's Country (Nov 2, 2000 , NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : Nov 4, 1999 Joan Didion: 'The Day Was Hot and Still...' (NY Review of Books)
               Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris
    -REVIEW : Jun 24, 1999 Joan Didion: Uncovered Washington (NY Review of Books)
               Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story by Michael Isikoff
               Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American
               Politics by Ralph Reed
               Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American
               Decline by Robert H. Bork
    -REVIEW : Oct 22, 1998 Joan Didion: Clinton Agonistes (NY Review of Books)
               Referral to the United States House of Representatives pursuant to Title
               28, United States Code, §595(c) Submitted by the Office of the
               Independent Counsel
    -REVIEW : Apr 23, 1998 Joan Didion: Varieties of Madness  (NY Review of Books)
               The Unabomber Manifesto "FC."
               A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
               Drawing Life by David Gelernter
    -REVIEW : Dec 18, 1997 Joan Didion: The Lion King  (NY Review of Books)
               Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary
               Leader by Dinesh D'Souza
    -REVIEW : of THE GOLDEN AGE OF AMERICAN GARDENS Proud Owners, Private Estates, 1890-1940. By Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller (Joan Didion, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer (Joan Didion, NY Times Book Review)
    -EXCERPT : from Slouching Towards Bethlehem  by Joan Didion
    -ESSAY : On Going Home from  Slouching Towards Bethlehem  by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from Why I Write (The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1976)
    -EXCERPT : "The Women's Movement" by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from Joan Didion's "Marrying Absurd"
    -EXCERPT : From "The White Album" by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from The White Album Chapter IV Soujourns
    -INTERVIEW : Joan Didion (dave eggers, Salon, 10/96)
    -INTERVIEW : Joan Didion. (Interview, Mark Marvel, Sept, 1996)
    -ARCHIVES : "didion" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "joan didion" (Find Articles)
    -Joan Didion (1934- ) (American Literature on the Web)
    -Joan Didion (Selves in the Valley)
    -PROFILE : JOAN DIDION  (Sandra Braman)
    -PROFILE : Didion as Diva (Bill Hayes, Salon)
    -ESSAY : JOAN DIDION: ONLY DISCONNECT  (October, 1979, From Off Center: Essays by Barbara Grizzutti Harrison (1980))
    -ESSAY : Slouching Towards Bethlehem:  A Brief Structural Analysis (Allan T. Grohe, Jr.)
    -ESSAY : Joan Didion and Twentieth-Century Acts of Interpretation (George P. Landow, The Core)
    -ESSAY :  Joan Didion and "Company": A Response to John Whalen-Bridge (GORDON O. TAYLOR, Connotations 6.2 (1996-97)
    -ESSAY : Slouching Towards Postmodern: Joan Didion and the Crisis of Narrative (Jay Porter, A Senior Essay in the English Major, Yale College, 1995)
    -ESSAY : The Hollywood Novel: Gender and Lacanian Tragedy in Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays (Chip Rhodes, Style)
    -REVIEW : "On Morality" from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (j turner)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (1996)(MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Michael Wood, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Oct 31, 1996 Elizabeth Hardwick: In the Wasteland (NY Review of Books)
               The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (James Wood, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted (Dwight Garner, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Kate Tuttle, Boston Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Tai Moses, Metro Active)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Donna Seaman, Hungry Mind Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted (Anna Shapiro, Book Report)
    -REVIEW : of After Henry By Joan Didion (1992)(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of After Henry by Joan Didion (Hendrik Hertzberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Miami by Joan Didion (1987)(James Chace, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Miami By Joan Didion (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of SALVADOR. By Joan Didion (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of SALVADOR By Joan Didion (Warren Hoge, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Democracy by Joan Didion (1984)(Mary McCarthy, NY Times Book Review)

    -ESSAY : BOOK NOTES : A Talked-About Dedication (Esther Fein, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Caliparanoia dreamin' : The Golden State's helter-skelter soul has long been the fertile crescent of fear, but we're moving on now -- to something worse. (Anthony York, Salon)